Accuracy, misinformation and pseudoscience on the internet

Climate change doesn’t exist.

Immunisation causes autism.

Fluoride is poison.

Scientists and governments don’t want you to know.

These are some of the things you might read on the internet.  They may be quite persuasive, depending on your particular set of values, beliefs and knowledge. But are they true? How do you know? How do you find out? Today’s blog post will discuss some of these issues.

What is accuracy on the internet?

Author: ClkerFreeVectorImages Source: ttps://pixabay.com/en/bull-s-eye-aim-arrow-target-hit-297805/ License: CC0 Public Domain

Bull’s Eye; Author: ClkerFreeVectorImages
Source: ttps://pixabay.com/en/bull-s-eye-aim-arrow-target-hit-297805/
License: CC0 Public Domain

Accuracy on the internet refers to the truth of the information: true or false, right or wrong, black or white.  We know that there is no guarantee that the information we find on the internet is accurate. Anyone can publish anything they like.  There may be no review process or fact-checking of the information prior to it being published, as there is for other published information, such as newspapers, journals, books and magazines.

Evaluating the quality of information on the internet

The notion of “accuracy” is limited because it refers to information that can be held up to some objective notion of “truth”.  This may work for some kinds of information, e.g. science (more on science later), geography and mathematics; but there is a lot of information on the internet that is not fact-based, but based on someone’s opinion.

We are talking about a bigger concept than simply whether the information we are reading is accurate or correct. We are referring to the quality of the information, which has many dimensions, of which accuracy is one.  QUT’s Study Smart Research and Study Skills Tutorial uses the following 6 criteria in evaluating internet resources:

  1. Reliability of the source: the credentials of the author and the publication are used to establish authority and credibility of the information.
  2. Validity: documentation of research methods, and inclusion of references.
  3. Accuracy: facts are cited and referenced; spelling and grammar is accurate.
  4. Authority of the author: Information is provided about the author, as well as their affiliations to organisations, their qualifications and experience.
  5. Timeliness: refers to information about when the information was created or published, and whether the information is updated. Currency of information is important in areas of rapid change, such as information technology.
  6. Point of view: Information is evaluated to decide if it is biased or unbalanced.

People need to evaluate internet resources based on a number of criteria to determine whether it is good quality information. The skills involved in evaluating information are part of a larger skill set referred to as “Information literacy”.

What is information literacy?

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), a division of the American Library Association (ALA) defines information literacy as the abilities that enable individuals to “recognise when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the required information.”

5 Components of Information Literacy; Author: Seminole State Library Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ronp6Iue9w License: Creative Commons Attribution License (reuse allowed)

5 Components of Information Literacy;
Author: Seminole State Library
Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ronp6Iue9w
License: Creative Commons Attribution License (reuse allowed)

Determining the accuracy of information on the internet comes into the “evaluate” part of the definition.  People need to have the skills to critically evaluate information. This is really important! Many adults don’t have the skills to do it, taking for granted that the information they read on the internet is correct.

What is misinformation?

Misinformation refers to inaccurate or false information that is spread intentionally or unintentionally.

Author: Dave Haygarth Source: https://goo.gl/93g2hg License: CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Utter Bull; Author: Dave Haygarth
Source: https://goo.gl/93g2hg
License: CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Misinformation on the internet is a bit scary.  Read some of the stories on What’s the Harm?   and listen to this episode of Ockham’s razor on ABC Radio National if you don’t believe me.

In this episode, Tory Shepherd, Senior Writer for the Advertiser in Adelaide, worries about today’s kids, wondering how they will ever be able to determine truth, logic and reason, when truth is your own opinion, experts are hiding the truth, and science is no longer an objective, observable source of truth, but a belief system, which you can choose to believe in, or not.  She discusses how powerful the pseudoscience on a number of issues has become, and how resistant to extinction; particularly the pseudoscience on climate change, the anti-vaccination movement and fluoridation.  Her concern is that these movements can have such strength that they actually influence public policy.  She mentions a couple of politicians who believe that fluoride is a neurotoxin that politicians want to put in the water to poison the population.  She discusses the danger of people doing their own research, distrusting experts, and not knowing the limits of their own knowledge.

Why is misinformation so effective?

I found out that there are a few interesting psychological explanations for the power of misinformation; including:

  • It takes cognitive effort to evaluate the plausibility and source of a message. If you don’t really care about the topic, or you don’t have time to think about it or evaluate it, you may be more likely to accept the misinformation as fact.
  • When people do evaluate the message, they mainly consider whether the information agrees with what they already believe (confirmation bias).

When efforts are made to retract misinformation, often times they don’t work, and may even increase the person’s belief in the misinformation.

Cousins’ article states that there are real dangers of misinformation; particularly in terms of misinformation of the majority possibly influencing political decisions; and misinformation of individuals potentially causing them to make poor decisions with serious consequences.

Cousins believes that misinformation is worse than ignorance.

Is there a solution?

Education in critical thinking and information literacy skills are very important.  But I wonder if that is a complete solution.  Education won’t help everyone. Education may not unseat the misinformed beliefs that some people already hold, due to their distrust of science and expert opinion, or confirmation bias.  And what about vulnerable people who have limited cognitive, learning, intellectual or other impairments; with concomitant poor literacy, poor reasoning skills, and inability to conduct a critical evaluation of internet information?  Children are another vulnerable group, who potentially risk being harmed by carers with misinformed, pseudoscientific beliefs.

I don’t have the answer.  But I can envisage an ideal world where there might be a benevolent, independent global community of editor/s (maybe librarians? Maybe Wikipedia editors?) who would asterisk potentially suspect internet sources and indicate why they may not be the most credible, reliable or accurate source of information.

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